The Raptors are really into exploring new and exciting ways to lose winnable games this season. Tonight’s contest against the Knicks, which gave us an ugly first half followed by a solid 23.5 minutes of basketball, came down to a few decisions that one could generously call questionable. The first came from the referees after they chose to recall a back-breaking three-pointer from rookie Malachi Flynn to put Toronto in control late; the second came with the Raptors streaking down the court, down two, with a chance to win. In that moment, Pascal Siakam decided to commit a double-dribble in transition, snatching defeat from the jaws of potential victory. Toronto would go on to lose to New York, 102-96, in one of their more perplexing defeats of the year.
In all, as hungry as the Raptors looked last night, it seemed like tonight they just wanted to go home for a nap — at least to start. With Kyle Lowry back in the lineup, and paired with a rested Siakam, Toronto got off to a sluggish start, shooting just 24 percent in the frame (and 20 percent from three), while getting out-rebounded 14-11. Chris Boucher — despite a nifty sweeping left-handed finish for two of his team-leading six points — was bullied in particular by every Knicks frontcourt player while the team fell behind by 11 early. To make matters worse, while coach Nick Nurse now has more players to work with, he opted to play both Khem Birch and Freddie Gillespie together (along with Flynn, DeAndre’ Bembry, and Rodney Hood), which totally sewered the team’s offense to end the quarter.
The Raptors did not improve in the second — nor did the pace and style of the game. While they did manage to get their shooting up to, uh, 31 percent overall, they stayed behind the Knicks by a dozen or so (up to as many as 16) for most of the frame. The Knicks are a better opponent than the Cavaliers, but it is still comical to consider that these Raptors scored 87 points in a half less than 24 hours before, and managed just 42 points in this one. Even with an extra-eager whistle (the Raptors shot 10-of-12 from the foul line to New York’s aggressive 13-for-15), nothing seemed to juice Toronto’s offense.
The returned Siakam did not help matters. He didn’t score until almost 19 minutes into the game — and went 1-for-11 for the half. Meanwhile, outside of Lowry’s usual controlled fury (and 14 points), the Raptors saw very little offense from anyone else. Even last night’s hero Gary Trent Jr. looked off for much of the first half, chipping in with only a modest seven points (while putting up two airballs). On the plus side, Yuta Watanabe was dropping threes — he was 2-for-3, which made him Toronto’s best shooter in the half — while new addition Birch finished (two) plays at the rim in relatively smooth order. As a result of the largely negative energy though, the Raptors were still down 56-42 at the half.
In the third, the Raptors flipped it up. Leaning almost exclusively on their starters, plus a few minutes of Flynn, they threw a zone defense at the Knicks, which once again flummoxed them. New York’s hot shooting cooled, their transition opportunities dried up, and the ball movement just wasn’t there. Yes, despite being down by as many as 18, the Raptors got to within two points thanks to a 16-4 run and that zone defense. Trent Jr. shooting 5-of-6 for 14 points was huge too, along with a sudden nine-point burst from Siakam. That the Raptors also got another nine points from Boucher plus three timely blocks also made a difference. (Say what you will of Boucher, he doesn’t give up.) If not for a long rain delay thanks to a leaky MSG roof — only in New York, baby! — Toronto’s momentum might have carried them to a lead right then and there in the third.
As it happened, the Raptors quickly took the lead in the fourth thanks to a similar reserve-heavy lineup, only with Yuta in place of Gillespie (a wise choice). For an extended few minutes, Nurse was content to let Flynn sink-or-swim while orchestrating the offense. The rookie had a few pick-and-roll turnovers (3), but he also had nine points — or he would have had nine if one of his threes had not been recalled later because one of his shoe molecules was out of bounds. That’s how close it was. Though the energy had been going the Raptors’ way, their offense fell apart for too long a stretch after that, even as the starters came back into the game. It didn’t help that the Knicks’ Julius Randle would then go on to score his first of eight points in the second half to reclaim the lead for New York.
The Raptors played from behind the rest of the way, even when it looked like they might make the Knicks eat their words. I mean that literally: after a questionable call got Lowry to the line late, RJ Barrett could be heard yelling “ball don’t lie!” after Kyle missed the first of two free throws. Almost immediately afterwards, Lowry drove past Randle for a hellacious lay-up to get Toronto back to within one. If this game had been last year — or almost any other time over the past five or so years — I would have bet my life on Lowry making one more awesome play to get the Raptors the win.
Instead, Lowry made half of one: he stole the ball with the Raps down two and the shot clock turned off. Since Siakam had just scored the last Toronto bucket — a called goaltend — Lowry passed the ball ahead to Pascal in the open floor thinking he’d made the right call. But there’s no other way to say it: under almost no pressure, with the Raps running in a 3-on-1 formation, Siakam double-dribbled it, literally stopping the Raptors’ run dead in its tracks. Like I said, new and exciting ways to lose.